Posted April 27, 2023

How LGBTQ+ History and Culture Have Shaped Bangkok


In Southeast Asia, LGBTQ+ culture vacillates between loud-and-proud acceptance and entrenched hostility. While some countries let their Pride flags fly, others are fiercely opposed.

In Indonesia, for instance, a Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that only 9% of respondents believed homosexuality should be accepted by society, and the deputy head of the Indonesian Ulema Council tweeted that “LGBT must be amputated, instead of tolerated.” And in Singapore, sodomy laws still exist that have yet to be overturned by the courts, despite multiple attempts.

Bangkok: A beacon of hope in Southeast Asia. (Photo Credit: Waranont Joe)

In Thailand, however, Bangkok beckons like a rainbow-clad beacon for the region.

A Pioneer for Progress

Thailand has been a Pride pioneer for years, deemed one of the most inclusive and accepting countries in Southeast Asia, where “boy love” is a genre of same-sex television that’s not only allowed, but has become so successful it boasts strong viewership in countries like Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In stark contrast to some of its neighbors, a 2019 study by the United Nations Development Programme showed that 69% of non-LGBTQ+ people in Thailand have favorable views of their LGBTQ+ neighbors and support inclusive rights.

The country became one of the first in the region to ratify a bill to legalize same-sex unions in 2022, and while the results of the different versions submitted to lawmakers remains to be determined, it is pivotal progress for a country with a majority religious population (95% of Thais are Buddhist). If it passes in any form, Thailand would become only the second country in all of Asia, after Taiwan, to legalize some kind of same-sex union.

In a strongly Buddhist region, Bangkok is pulling Thailand forward. (Photo Credit: Joshua Rawson Harris)

Old Bangkok is merging with a new, progressive state. (Photo Credit: Ran Kaninthanond)

At the forefront of that progress is Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city and — with a population of more than 10 million — by far its largest. While metropolitan beachfront resorts in areas like Phuket feel wholly inclusive, and Chiang Mai launched its first Pride parade in 2009, Bangkok is the major epicenter paving the way forward for Thais far and wide.

Last year, thanks largely to the support of its new governor Chadchart Sittiput, the city held its first Pride celebration in 16 years — and the first one ever with government backing, complete with trans flags, drag queens, and plenty of pageantry.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

As is true in most regions, progress is more of a marathon than a sprint. While queer and gender-nonconforming people are omnipresent throughout Bangkok, especially in public-facing industries like tourism and entertainment, homophobia still rages rampant.

Despite progress, discrimination still runs rampant in popular industries, such as tourism. (Photo Credit: Note Thanun)

The JJ night market of Bangkok. (Photo Credit: Lisheng Chang)

The country introduced the Gender Equality Act in 2015, which sought to protect trans people from discrimination, albeit with vague language. And more recently, a 2022 poll conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration found that a vast majority of Bangkok residents said “third gender” people are acceptable as friends or colleagues, and that same-sex marriage should be legalized.

However, surrogacy and adoption are also still only permitted for legally married couples, which omits LGBTQ+ people, and employment discrimination is still a far-reaching issue in many heteronormative industries. Even Brian Davidson, an openly gay British Ambassador, had to register his husband as a “domestic servant” when visiting Thailand in 2016.

The vast majority of Bangkok residents accept a third gender and the right to marriage equality. (Photo Credit: Yuzki Wang)

While religion in many other cities and countries spurs hostility, Thailand’s Buddhist population is less at odds, thanks to their innate practice of tolerance — and avoidance of conflict — that is intrinsic to the religion. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1956, and homosexuality was declassified as an “illness” in 2022.

More recently, LGBTQ+ individuals have been able to join the Thai armed forces, and a 2015 law allowed gay men to donate blood. Despite lingering hold-ups with legislation, LGBTQ+ culture abounds and thrives in Bangkok, where gay bars, clubs, and LGBTQ-owned hotels and businesses are a ubiquitous norm.

Setting the Social Precedent

Like so many other liberal dots in conservative countries, Bangkok has long set the social precedent for Thailand at large. While the country inches steadily towards inevitable legal inclusion, it’s the open-minded atmosphere in this mammoth metropolis that serves as more of a nationwide barometer, which is why locals and tourists alike feel right at home at Pride festivities, drag shows and cabarets, and in LGBTQ+ bars and clubs like DJ Station, Tawan Bar, and along Silom Soi 4.

Locals and tourists alike will feel welcome at LGBTQ+ bars throughout the city. (Photo Credit: Hanny Naibaho)

In addition to the newly relaunched Pride Festival, annual festivities in Bangkok include a Gay New Year’s party and the gCircuit dance party in April. Last year, the Pride Festival was anchored on the major thoroughfare of Silom Road, representing a renaissance of sorts and a front-and-center showcase to the city and nation at large that the LGBTQ+ community and their allies aren’t going anywhere — just growing stronger.

As more and more government advocates join the fray, as Pride continues its epic comeback, and as Thai people negotiate their religion with civic rights, the future looks bright for Bangkok and beyond.

Where to stay: Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok

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